A legend in family history

1st research report by Heinz Axthelm, February 1938.

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How a legend in family history comes about.

  1. The legend.
  2. The historical enlightenment.

1. The legend:

For generations strange mysterious stories have been told in the Axthelm families. Grandmothers passed them on to the children, who pass them to their children. With each passing, a little bit more legend has been added, some changed, and others expanded, and so forth until several legends now exist, which all tell of an enigmatic and very mysterious “Sweden origin” of the family Axthelm. Fantastic conjectures surfaced, and many bearers of the Axthelm name felt more or less consciously seized by a secret reverence before the certainly very significant Swedish origin from the past. In addition many upon hearing of the name Axthelm would say, ” Your name sounds so Swedish! Are you from Sweden?” Yes, even more: when my father, the teacher Thilo Axthelm, took part in a bacteriological course in Berlin and met 20 Swedish chemists there, with astonishing certainty, these Swedes unanimously said, “Your lineage comes from Sweden, your name is Swedish!” With such statements there seemed no doubt that our lineage actually came from Sweden. No wonder that now the question arose: “When has the lineage Axthelm come to Germany? What was the cause? And where is the origin of the Axthelm lineage in Sweden?” So different coats of arms, of fanciful designs, developed on this basis.

As a historical scholar, I almost succumbed to this fairytale, if not for the numerous occurrences of the name Axthelm in the time around 1600 in the church books from Bachra, Ostramondra, Rettgenstedt, Olbersleben and Lossa. Since the legends almost all told of an immigration at the time of the 30-year war, there seemed to arise a sharp contradiction; these considerations prompted me to investigate the stories of Swedish origins.

First, the two most common legends:

a) My grandmother told us, citing a letter from a fortune teller (!), that in the 30-year war two brothers (bearing the name Axthelm) of noble descent had come to Germany from Sweden via the German island of Ruegen. They were within the armies of Gustavus Adolphus and, upon Gustavus Adolphus’s death and the withdrawal of the Swedish armies, remained on the Frisian coast as shepherds for a while. These two Axthelm brothers are said to be huge, blonde, blue-eyed figures. After the end of the 30-years war, both brothers had wandered south, one went to Central Germany in the Unstruth area, where he married into a peasant family and so legend has it that he became the origin of the middle-class German lineage.

The other had wandered further south, married in Bavaria, left wife, children and farm and continued moving to Transylvania, where he a founded a new lineage.

Stockholm Bloodbath - source: Wikipedia

Stockholm Bloodbath – source: Wikipedia

b) Far more interesting and much more historically grounded story is the family legend that has survived for generations in the Bavarian noble family “von Axthelm” (which is one branch of the central German farmer lineage Axthelm). The legend is described here along general lines: The emergence of the Axthelm lineage in Germany is related to the struggles of the Swedish nobility against the Swedish crown, that started at the beginning of the 16th century and ended in the so-called “Stockholm bloodbath” in 1520. Through the deceit of the Swedish King Christian II (who ruled Sweden from 1520 to 1521), grandson of the Danish King Christian I, some of the aristocrats were executed in an ambush while others were put on trial and their families were expelled from the country.

The second aristocratic conspiracy, in the year 1792 induced the assassination of King Gustav III (1771 – 1792) at a masquerade ball in the opera house in Stockholm. The act was led by a leader the noble party, the count of Anckarström. According to a family legend, this count is said to be the brother-in-law of a Mr. von Axtjölm, who was also involved in the conspiracy (*See #1 below following providing information). The participating families are said to be be disposessed of their property, family trees have been destroyed, patents of nobility have been burnt and were given a banishment from Sweden; this had been ordered by Gustav IV Adolph (1792-1809). A stirps of the family Axthelm is said to have come to Germany via the island of Ruegen and first settled in Saxony (Vogtland) region.

As far as the legend goes.

The historical family tradition of the Bavarian noble family “von Axthelm” is directly linked to them: in the Napoleonic times, Johann Andrä von Axthelm, electoral Saxon Grenadier Captain in Regiment of Prince Clemens Infantry came from Saxony to the court to Munich and stood as a general staff officer in Bavarian services until in the battle Lofer (Tyrol) he was wounded. He then turns in to diplomatic service, took over the organization of the Bavarian postal system. He was married to Friederike Charlotte Tugendreich née von Krashan (also written von Krassow) from the house of Svaikvitz, who is the oldest daughter of the electoral Saxon mayor Raben Bugislaus von Krashan and his wife, nèe von Bornsdorff, and died in 1821.

What about this so-called Swedish ancestry, and what does the historical reality look like?

After this, I inquired at various genealogy institutes of Germany (in Leipzig, Dresden and Berlin), but without any success; only major doubt conjured up. So I turned directly to the genealogy institutes in Stockholm and Uppsala (Swedish spelling) with the request, whether in Sweden in the past and present a lineage of the name Axthelm existed.

Then I got from the “Genealogiska Byrån” from Uppsala the following reply: “In answer to your request I can only say that I have no knowledge of a Swedish lineage Axthelm. This name is not found in the genealogy books, not in genealogical collections. In turn, there has been a noble family Axehielm found here. Johann Hinderson, the son of a merchant in Norrköping, was knighted in 1651 and got the name Axehielm since then. He died in 1692, and as he left no male offspring, this lineage with the founder extinct.”

What I have always suspected was confirmed to me, namely: our lineage does not originate in Sweden, but in Germany. With that, I devitalized the so-called Sweden legends and set about working with my father to parse the church books of the places where the name Axthelm occurs more frequently: Bachra, Ostramondra, Rettgenstedt, Olbersleben and Lossa. This methodology gave a clear singular overview until 1591 and found that the lineage Axthelm already existed around 1500 as an old-established farming family in Germany, in the Unstrut area between Kölleda and Laucha. All previously defined lines have their output taken from one of the above villages. (Besides mentions the military register of Hardisleben from the year 1555 four farmers named Axthelm and the matriculation of the University of Erfurt of 1633 two students, from Neuhausen).

Thus, it was truly demonstrated that the German family Axthelm (before 1640 as Axhelm) was as an old Thuringian peasant stock, but the origin of Bavarian nobility initially remained wrapped in mysterious darkness.

I made several approaches to the history of this lineage. I supposed that it somehow must be connected with the old Thuringian lineage, but at this point I could not find what was behind this mystery. When I again and again investigated the old files of the Prince Clemens infantry regiment that had its base in Langensalza and Sangerhausen, one day I discovered it myself in the work of Aster (“List of those officers who their kings and Lord faithfully remained”- lighting the chaos of war between Prussia and Saxony from the end of August to the end of October 1756): a second lieutenant Axthelm. I suddenly sensed the trail to uncover the secret. And right! On the basis of investigations in the Military Archives in Dresden I got an excerpt from a behavior list, which exactly proved the birthdate, birthplace etc. of Captain Johann Andrä Axthelm. The Johann Andrä came from Ostramondra at Kölleda and was the son of Johann Christoph etc.

With my father, I immediately compared it with the church records of Ostramondra and was able to determine the accuracy of the information. Only one thing was strange: of all things, the birth registration of Joh.  Andrä was not a baptismal name registered; the only one was “Johann Andreas Axthelm, judge, born to Ostramondra a son. But since I can find no Axthelm with this first name and since the data is matching, Johann Andrä must be the son of Joh. Andreas. The Age difference of 3 years (after the Dresden register, Johann Andrä was born three years later) is immaterial because it can be explained with the age change on the occasion of promotion prospects in those days (see 1*).

So the Sweden legend found its explanation.

2. The historical enlightenment.

How to explain the real facts of the legend of Sweden?

Due to the banns declaration in the parish register of St. Jakobi / Sangerhausen, which reads as follows: “On the 27 March 1769 due to dispensation from banns on most gracious command the wedding took place: Mr. Johann Andreas Axthelm, First Lieutenant of Prince Clemens infantry regiment with Miss Charlotte Friederica Tugendreich von Krashan, oldest daughter of the capitain Raben Bugislaus von Krashan”, was a faultlessly determine that this Johann Andreas later was Captain Johann Andrä Axthelm mentioned. Since he left at a young age (probably 13 years old) his birthplace of Ostramondra and shows up later in Prince Clemens infantry regiment as a second lieutenant, he would not have any legitimate papers and no connection with his homeland. In this way his peasant origin was negated. He married a noble lady, thus gaining access to the higher offices, came to the court in Munich in the Napoleonic period, stood as a staff officer in Bavarian service until wounded in the battle of Lofer (Tyrol), and then used in the diplomatic service to take over the organization of the Bavarian postal system.

For his son Ernst Gottlob Heinrich Axthelm was then pronounced on April 13, 1814, as Bavarian nobility in Munich and incorporated on June 18, 1814 of the aristocracy (Ernst Gottlob Heinrich Axthelm was royal Bavarian Head Postmaster in Nuremberg, owner of goods Reichenschwend, Oberndorf and Leuzenberg). With the nobility recognition the family was also a given a crest as its own, the sole legal property of this branch and may not be claimed by any other bearer of the name Axthelm.

Since it could create the legend of our family from Sweden, that had its origin in the rise of farmer’s son Johannes Andreas to the Captain Johann Andrä Axthelm, according to his marrying into a noble line the condition of the collection of lineage created in the peerage. His son was then later – as reported above – officially awarded the patent nobility. Since then exists a noble family “von Axthelm” and the so-called “Swedish tradition”.

Frequently occurring in Swedish names the ending -helm, and the fact that later generations no longer knew where their ancestor Johann Andrä was born, leaves all sorts of mysterious suspicions. Eventually the time-line well-fitting suspicion has been made, that the second noble uprising in Sweden in 1792 had a connection with the dark prehistory of Johann Andrä, especially since there is some findings in the Swedish history chronicles that the family trees and patents of nobility of the conspirators have been destroyed.

It is thus clear that Axthelm, the middle German settlement of the same family, and the Bavarian noble family, “von Axthelm”, are descended from a common German peasantry. Has found that a branch from humble beginnings to become a respected and is currently an active part in the construction work of the young German Wehrmacht noble rank worked up is not only a glory for this lineage row, but an honourable fact for the whole lineage Axthelm and meritorious, as a mysterious, opaque Sweden origin.

“The merit is followed by fame, as the shadow follows the body.” (Seneca)

“As long as you wall on earth paths,

You do not escape error, friend.

but error makes you suspect the truth,

Error is color, truth is light.”


Eilenburg, February 1938.        Heinz Axthelm

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